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Boosting Employee Wellbeing in the New World of Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bob Lavigna
October 31, 2022

As we emerge from the pandemic, organizations around the world are struggling to adapt to our new world of work. Most importantly, this means meeting the demand by employees for flexibility in where and how they work. As I often remark in my presentations, the workplace evolution in the last two and a half years is the most significant change I’ve seen in my many years in the workforce, except perhaps for the introduction of the computer.

At the beginning of the pandemic, employers responded with empathy, quickly acting to take care of their employees. Organizations worked hard to clearly communicate plans and policies, provide personal protective equipment to employees who needed it, expand benefits and employee assistance programs and allow employees to work remotely where possible.

And despite dealing with the ravages of COVID-19, employees responded positively. According to Gallup, in May 2020, 49 percent of employees believed their employers cared about their wellbeing. This may seem low, but it was twice the percentage before COVID.

Clearly, many employees were buoyed by their organization’s attempts to take care of them.

Unfortunately, the bloom is now off this rose. Gallup’s 2022 polling shows that only 24 percent of employees believe their employers care about their wellbeing.

This decline is contributing to the so-called great resignation, as dissatisfied employees head for what they think are greener pastures. Employees who feel their employers do not care about them are significantly more likely to express their frustration by voting with their feet.

Meeting this challenge is particularly tough for the public sector, which is facing a workforce crisis. Quits and retirements are up, public confidence in government is low, the public sector’s ability to compete with the private sector on pay is extremely limited, government is not perceived as a technology leader and many government jobs cannot be performed remotely.

Recently, the Washington Post featured an op-ed piece, “A slow-moving crisis is paralyzing states and cities.” Post opinion writers usually focus their attention on loftier concerns, but as this piece demonstrates, the public sector workforce crisis is now front and center.

Given the critical importance of employee wellbeing to performance and retention, what should government do to improve their employees’ feeling of wellbeing?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to improve how employees feel about their employers. As I heard someone say recently, “One size fits one.” However, one solution that perhaps flies under the radar is boosting employee engagement to improve employee wellbeing.

The most-recent national engagement survey conducted by the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement (full disclosure—my previous employer) showed a link between engagement and wellbeing. As the chart below shows, engaged employees in all sectors were far more likely to say they feel good about their overall mental health.

How would you rate your overall mental health (percent good or very good)

This research provides more empirical support for why organizations, including in government, should focus on improving employee engagement.

The business case for boosting engagement in both the public and private sectors has been widely documented and discussed, by me and others. Engaged employees are more confident that their organizations are succeeding, are more productive, deliver better customer service and are much more likely to stay with the organization. In today’s highly competitive talent environment, the latter outcome is particularly important. Organizations identified as great places to work have up to 50 percent lower turnover.

Building engagement requires creating a positive employee experience. This trendy HR expression simply means ensuring that all the interactions an employee has with their employer are positive. Every aspect of the employee lifecycle—recruiting and hiring, onboarding, supervision, training and development, recognition, performance management, pay and benefits and diversity and inclusion—should be as positive as possible.

If these “moments that matter” are positive, the result is high engagement and employee wellbeing. One analysis revealed that organizations that create a positive employee experience are more than five times more likely to create sense of belonging, and also engage and retain employees.

Taking action to create a positive employee experience and therefore an employee feeling of wellbeing requires data. Organizations need to understand how employees feel about their experiences—what is working and what is not working. And then fix what is not working.

Indicators of workforce health can include data about turnover, attendance and overtime. Exit and stay interviews and focus groups allow the employer to directly ask employees about their experiences.

However, the most comprehensive way to take the temperature of the workforce is to conduct regular employee surveys. These can be full surveys, supplemented by periodic pulse surveys.

In this way, every employee has a voice, and all voices are equal.

What happens at work affects how we feel about our lives in general. That’s why improving engagement can improve employees’ overall feeling of wellbeing, and therefore enable the public sector to attract and retain the talent government needs to serve the American public.

Author: Bob Lavigna is Senior Fellow – Public Sector for the Ultimate Kronos Group, which provides HR technology and services to elevate the work experience. Bob advocates for effective practices that enable government to attract and retain talent. He was previously Director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement, Assistant Vice Chancellor for HR at the University of Wisconsin, VP – Research at the Partnership for Public Service and Director of the Wisconsin civil service system.

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